Chaplain Tom Brack of the Moberly Correctional Center (MCC) welcomed Bishop W. Shawn McKnight to the chapel and asked about his just-completed visit to the prison’s Protective Custody Unit (PCU).
“It was interesting,” the bishop told him. “There are saints down there.”
Bishop McKnight had accompanied Deacons John Hill and Christopher Sago into the PCU, a wing where the men live separately from the rest of the prison population for safety reasons.
“The guys were asking about having the bishop come, and Deacon Hill said, ‘I don’t see why not,” said Deacon Sago. “He asked, and the bishop said, ‘Well, yeah!’”
Anticipation started building in September, when the men got word of the pending visit.
“It’s like a birthday and Christmas all rolled into one for these guys,” said Deacon Sago. “They are super excited.”
Bishop McKnight visited with the Catholic men in PCU who signed up to talk with him. He heard their confessions and presided at a short Communion service in the same office he had used for a confessional.
“Jesus Christ continually bears to us a message of hope, a message of love and forgiveness, a message of LIFE — eternal life,” the bishop told the men.
Deacon Hill preached the homily. He said Advent is a time to make changes, “to take some type of first step to get closer to Christ, to become more like Him.”
“The Kingdom of God is at hand!” he said, echoing St. John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2). “Regardless of our situation, the Kingdom of God is here and now,” Deacon Hill continued. “As followers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we try as hard as we can, with the help and the grace of God, to imitate His Son, to show love, to show forgiveness, to show compassion.”
Bishop McKnight gave them Holy Communion and called down a blessing from God.
One of the men said he felt the Holy Spirit reach into his heart, filling him with joy and peace.
The man prayed for his family back home to have the same experience whenever they receive the sacraments.
He said he looks forward to worshiping God with them together some day.
At Mass in the chapel, Bishop McKnight was to welcome three of the residents into full communion with the Church — receiving their Profession of Faith, confirming them and giving them their First Holy Communion.
He first heard more residents’ confessions in a room off to the side of the chapel while about 60 people — prison residents and volunteers from St. Pius X parish who regularly visit them — prepared for Mass.
“What the bishop is going to give you, what God is going to consecrate is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ,” Deacon Hill reminded everyone present. “It’s not a symbol, it is not a sign, it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.”
“The amen you say back to the bishop means, ‘I believe! I believe this is Jesus Christ, I believe He died for our sins, and I will try to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ!’” the deacon told them.
“What you have received”
Bishop McKnight said Advent is a time to celebrate the Second Coming of Christ.
“We look forward to His return in glory because we also celebrate His birth in time,” the bishop said. “And in a special way, we await His coming on this very altar to us today in the Eucharist — the gift of His very Self.”
Bishop McKnight said Advent, the Sacraments of Initiation and the Holy Eucharist are all intimately linked with the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah told of God’s plans to send the Messiah — His Anointed One — Who would possess the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord.
Through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the Father of that long-awaited Messiah bestows those same gifts on His people for the purpose of building up His kingdom on earth.
Speaking to the three candidates for full communion in the Church, Bishop McKnight said they were about to be sealed with that same Spirit, “when you shall be anointed with the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands and the anointing with Holy Chrism oil.”
He reminded them that the supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit is not merely for the salvation of our own souls — “That is what Baptism is for!” — but also to enrich their natural gifts and talents for the mission of the Church.
“The journey of faith in Jesus Christ, already begun in you with your baptism, shall be sealed, completed and strengthened with this second outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you,” he told them.
The bishop urged the men to be lifelong witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ, leading other people to Him and His Church through word and deed, just as fellow Catholics had done for them.
“You are challenged to bring others to the table of the Lord by showing the beauty of the Catholic faith in the mercy and charity of Christ,” he said.
The bishop reminded them that God freely bestows His mercy on His elect specifically in order for them to do the same for others.
“All of our past sins against God and one another have been nailed to the cross,” he said. “So now is the time for us to practice the mercy we have received.”
By name, the bishop summoned the candidates for confirmation to stand before him and the altar.
Together, they prayed the Nicene Creed with the rest of the congregation.
Each of the three then individually made a profession of faith: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
In unity with the whole Church, the bishop then implored God to seal them with the Holy Spirit.
He anointed them with Sacred Chrism, saying: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Peace be with you.”
He then invited everyone forward to exchange a sign of peace with the newest Catholics.
Right before the end of Mass, Deacon Hill called forward an MCC resident who was going home that week, as most of them eventually will.
The man’s fellow Catholics gathered around him, placing a hand on his shoulder as Deacon Hill led them in prayer: “We ask You to bless him, his family and all that he does in Your name.”
Bishop McKnight said he is proud and grateful for all that the deacons and laypeople of St. Pius X parish do to help the men in the prison maintain their connection with Christ and His Church.
He said hearing confessions, offering Mass and welcoming new members into such a tightly-knit community, made him feel like a parish priest again.
“It’s very good for my own heart to be here,” he said.
Moberly parishioners Joe and Mary Knaebel said the MCC chapel is an oasis of peace and holiness for men of many faith traditions.
Mrs. Knaebel encourages the men to spend as much time in the chapel as they can.
“This is a good place to be, away from all the nonsense and negative activity they encounter on the yard,” she said. “They have a wonderful chaplain and one of the best programs in the state.”
In the 10 years since they became active in the Residents Encounter Christ (REC) renewal experience for prison residents, they’ve seen the number of people attending the monthly REC fellowships go from five or six to 50 or 60.
Those are people whose lives began to change when they encountered Christ personally on a three-day REC retreat, held regularly in prisons throughout Missouri.
Each of those weekends requires about 20 to 25 outside volunteers.
“Some of the men here have never experienced love in their lives,” said Mr. Knaebel. “But on this retreat, they feel loved because there are 20 to 25 outside people who come in just because they want to be here with them and share God’s love with them.”
The residents discover that they must share that love, sending ripples across the prison and beyond as the men are released back into society.
Go in peace
Deacon Hill said it was a phenomenal day for the men of the Moberly Correctional Center.
“I think they’ve had a spiritual experience they’ll remember for a long time, if not for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Was the bishop right about there being saints behind those gates?
“Most definitely!” said Deacon Hill.
Here’s how two of the newly initiated Catholics at the Moberly Correctional Center reacted to Bishop McKnight’s visit:
“It was a very emotional morning. There were moments I was not able to hold it together. Bishop McKnight was very nice and I could feel the Holy Spirit emanating from him. It was a great honor to be able to get confirmed into the Holy Catholic Church by him, considering my circumstance. It was the best moment of my life and I am looking forward to seeing Bishop McKnight again.”
“Most exciting moment in my walk of faith so far. I am most grateful and full of joy and excitement to have been confirmed into the Catholic Church. I can’t wait to see what the Lord has in mind for me with my new family in Christ and with the Church.”